A rare find by a Missouri Historical Society archivist is proving to be a valuable link to a chapter of St. Louis’ baseball history from nearly a century ago. It’s the only known image of Stars Park, a baseball stadium that was home to a Negro National League team in St. Louis.
Lauren Sallwasser made the discovery a few years ago while going through 20 boxes of negatives from the collection of late St. Louis dentist and amateur photographer Dr. William Swekosky.
At first, she thought it was the old Sportsman’s Park, but the ballpark didn’t fit with other photographs from that area of the city.
Then her archivist instincts kicked in. Those skills can be best described as part historian, part detective.
“I get sucked down the rabbit hole. And I find it very exciting,” she said.
Sallwasser started wondering if she had a long-elusive image of Stars Park, which once stood at the corner of Compton Avenue and Market Street. She searched online and in old newspapers, but could not find any photograph of the 10,000-seat venue.
Then Sallwasser found an image of the intersection where Stars Park once stood, taken after the stadium was torn down.
“I was very, very lucky,” she said. “It was kind of a different angle of the same intersection, but the corner of the building is the same in both images. And that's what I used to make the match.”
That confirmation produced what the historical society says is probably the only image of Stars Park. The organization is not aware of any other publicly held images of the park.
While little photographic evidence of the stadium seems to remain, there are pictures of the team. The Stars won championships with some high-profile players. The roster included James “Cool Papa” Bell, Willie Wells and George “Mule” Suttles.
All are now in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
“I think it's pretty important that we have the Stars Park story. But it's such a short blip,” said Sharon Smith, the Missouri Historical Society’s curator of civic and personal identity.
While the Stars won the pennant in 1931, the Negro National League folded the same year in the midst of the Great Depression.
“We didn't get to carry on that Negro League tradition for as long as, say, the Kansas City Monarchs, or some of the teams in the East,” Smith said, “but the photo — you know — we get to hold that."
Stars Park was unique, in that it was owned by the team. Ray Doswell, vice president and curator of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, said there were only a few others owned by teams, including in Pittsburgh and Memphis.
While Stars Park only had 10,000 seats, Doswell said owning the stadium allowed the team to make the business viable.
“Your fans could come and feel safe,” Doswell said. “And then you control the revenue.”
Other Negro National League teams had to rent from Major League teams like the New York Yankees.
Doswell said some of the ballparks where National Negro League teams played still exist, but they weren’t owned by those teams. That includes Rickwood Field in Alabama, the former home of the Birmingham Black Barons.
“That stadium is really a museum now. You can go and visit. They have a Friends of Rickwood Field society that helps preserve the stadium.”
The site of Stars Park is now a baseball field on the Harris-Stowe State University campus. A plaque marks the spot, and — thanks to the persistence of an archivist at the Missouri Historical Society — there's also a photograph of the Negro National League ballpark.
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